CIA chief Pompeo brands WikiLeaks a ‘hostile’ spy agency

The director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, has branded WikiLeaks a “hostile intelligence agency,” claiming it represents a threat to US national security. The group has been accused of swaying the 2016 presidential election.

USA Mike Pompeo in Washington (picture-alliance/AP Photo/P. Martinez Monsivais)

In his first public speech since being appointed as CIA chief, Pompeo on Thursday said WikiLeaks was often abetted by other countries, adding that the group had “no moral compass.”

He claimed that – rather than opposing dictators and autocratic regimes – WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was guilty of siding with them.

“WikiLeaks walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service,” Pompeo said.

“I am quite confident that had Assange been around in the 30s, and the 40s and the 50s, he would have found himself on the wrong side of history. We know this because Assange and his ilk make common cause with dictators today.”

Read: Seven ways to keep the CIA out of your home

Pompeo said that while WikiLeaks claimed to be a champion of freedom, its members were more interested in their public profile.

“They try unsuccessfully to cloak themselves and their actions in the language of liberty and privacy, but in reality, they champion nothing but their own celebrity. Their currency is click bait. Their moral compass – non existent.”

Red faces for US officials

Last month, WikiLeaks published almost 8,000 documents saying they revealed secrets about CIA cyber espionage tools. Previously, it released 250,000 State Department cables and embarrassed the US military with logs from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Watch video02:16

WikiLeaks dump exposes CIA eavesdropping

US intelligence agencies claim Democratic emails released by WikiLeaks during the 2016 presidential campaign had originally been hacked by Russia to swing the election against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton – in favor of Republican Donald Trump. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has denied that the release was intended to influence the election.

Before the November election, Trump said he was happy to see WikiLeaks publish private and politically damaging emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.

Assange, from Australia, has been taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, after allegations of rape in Sweden, which he denies. Assange claims the proceedings are being used as a pretext to allow for his extradition to the US.

rc/bw (AFP, AP Reuters)

 

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House Democrat says Trump may have leaked government secrets

A remark that President Trump made to Fox News on Wednesday isn’t sitting well with the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, who is now suggesting that the commander-in-chief’s comments, if true, could be compared to the actions of government leakers.

In an exclusive interview with Fox’s Tucker Carlson on Wednesday night, President Trump suggested “the CIA was hacked and a lot of things were taken.” He added “that was during the Obama years. That was not during us.”

The president may have been referring to the recent publishing of what are alleged to be CIA documents and hacking tools by the website WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims that the leaks are real, and highlight what he calls the “devastating incompetence” of the agency’s cybersecurity. The CIA has yet to confirm whether the materials are, in fact, authentic.

On Thursday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, took serious issue with the president’s suggestion that the agency was hacked. And Schiff says that, if true, the president’s comments are akin to the actions of those who leak government secrets.

WHITE HOUSE OFFICIALS STAND BY TRUMP WIRETAPPING CLAIM

“It would be one thing if the president’s statements were the product of intelligence community discussion and a purposeful decision to disclose information to the public, but that is unlikely to be the case,” Schiff said in a statement.

He added that while he thinks “the president has the power to declassify whatever he wants… this should be done as the product of thoughtful consideration and with intense input from any agency affected. For anyone else to do what the president may have done, would constitute what he deplores as ‘leaks.'”

A Fox News poll released Wednesday shows a record 73 percent of voters have confidence in the CIA, up from 67 percent in December.

In recent weeks, the president has made clear his distaste for leakers. On February 24, the president lamented on Twitter that “the FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time… Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect.”

Critics point to his support for WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign as evidence to the contrary. “I love WikiLeaks,” then-nominee Trump said during campaign remarks in October.

The investigation into possible CIA hacking isn’t the only thing over which Schiff seems to be at odds with Trump. On Wednesday, Schiff and House Intel Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-CA) repeated their assertions that they have yet to see any evidence that supports the president’s claim that Trump Tower was the subject of wiretapping.

TRUMP GIVES CIA POWER TO LAUNCH DRONE STRIKES

And on Thursday, the leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee took that assertion one step further, suggesting in a statement that they have seen no evidence that Trump Tower was under surveillance “by any element of the United States government either before or after Election Day 2016.”

In a March 4 tweet, the president suggested that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.” When asked on Wednesday why he didn’t withhold comment until he had proof of his claim, President Trump told Tucker Carlson “don’t forget, when I say wiretapped, those words were in quotes… [T]hat really covers surveillance and many other things. And nobody ever talks about the fact that was in quotes, but that’s a very important thing.”

How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!

New Fox polling also suggests that 76 percent of voters think President Trump should produce documents to back his claim about the wiretaps. That includes 63 percent of Republicans and 70 percent of independents.

The Department of Justice has until Monday to comply with an order from the House Intelligence Committee to gather evidence related to President Trump’s surveillance claim, though Rep. Nunes suggests he expects some of that evidence on Friday.

Monday is also when the committee expects to hold its first open hearing on Russia’s interference in the 2016 race and possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia. FBI Director Comey is expected to face direct questioning at that hearing, and it isn’t just the House that’s looking for answers.

Senator Lindsay Graham suggested earlier this week that subpoenas aren’t out of the question if lawmakers don’t get the information they’re looking for.

“Congress,” Graham said, “is going to flex its muscles.”

Connecting Trump’s Dots to Russia

I enjoyed the show “House of Cards” but always felt that it went a bit too far, that its plot wasn’t plausible. After seven weeks of President Trump, I owe “House of Cards” an apology. Nothing seems impossible any more.

That includes the most towering suspicion of all: that Trump’s team colluded in some way with Russia to interfere with the U.S. election. This is the central issue that we must remain focused on.

There are a lot of dots here, and the challenge is how to connect them. Be careful: Democrats should avoid descending into the kind of conspiratorial mind-set that led some Republicans to assume Hillary Clinton was a criminal about to be indicted or to conjure sex slaves belonging to her in a Washington pizza restaurant. Coincidences happen, and I think there has been too much focus on Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not enough on Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager. Here are 10 crucial dots:

1. President Trump and his aides have repeatedly and falsely denied ties to Russia. USA Today counted at least 20 denials. In fact, we now know that there were contacts by at least a half-dozen people in the Trump circle with senior Russian officials.

2. There’s no obvious reason for all these contacts. When Vice President Mike Pence was asked on Jan. 15 if there had been contacts between the Trump campaign and Kremlin officials, he answered: “Of course not. Why would there be?” We don’t know either, Mr. Vice President.

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Trump protesters at a rally in New York in February. CreditHiroko Masuike/The New York Times

3. There were unexplained communications between a Trump Organization computer server and Russia’s Alfa Bank, which has ties to President Vladimir Putin. These included 2,700 “look-up” messages to initiate communications, and some investigators found all this deeply suspicious. Others thought there might be an innocent explanation, such as spam. We still don’t know.

5. A well-regarded Russia expert formerly with MI6, Christopher Steele, produced a now-famous dossier alleging that Russia made compromising videos of Trump in 2013, and that members of the Trump team colluded with the Kremlin to interfere with the U.S. election.

The dossier quoted a Russian as saying that a deal had been arranged “with the full knowledge and support of Trump” and that in exchange for Russian help, “the Trump team agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue.” James Clapper, the American former national intelligence director, says he saw no evidence of such collusion but favors an investigation to get to the bottom of it.

6. Trump has expressed a bewilderingly benign view of Russia and appointed officials also friendly to Moscow. He did not make an issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the campaign.

7. A Trump associate, Roger Stone, appeared to have had advance knowledge of Russia’s disclosures through WikiLeaks of Hillary Clinton campaign emails. As early as August, two months before her campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails were released, Stone tweeted: “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” In October, six days before a dump of Clinton campaign emails, Stone tweeted: “Hillary Clinton is done. #Wikileaks.”

8. Sessions seems a red herring, in that he wasn’t a secret conduit to the Kremlin. The more interesting dot is Manafort, whom investigators have focused on because of his longstanding ties to Russia.

9. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia,” Donald Trump Jr. was quoted as saying in 2008. Russia may have gained leverage over Trump through loans to his organization or other business dealings. The way to ease these suspicions would be to examine Trump’s tax returns: Any government investigation that doesn’t obtain Trump’s tax returns simply isn’t a thorough investigation.

10. Even many Republicans acknowledge, as President George W. Bush put it, “We all need answers.” The House and Senate Intelligence Committees mostly operate behind closed doors, while we yearn for transparency. What is desperately needed is an independent inquiry modeled on the 9/11 Commission.

When friends press me about what I think happened, I tell them that my best guess is that there wasn’t a clear-cut quid pro quo between Trump and Putin to cooperate in stealing the election, but rather something more ambiguous and less transactional — partly because Putin intended to wound Clinton and didn’t imagine that Trump could actually win. Yet I wouldn’t be surprised if the Trump team engaged in secret contacts and surreptitious messages, and had advance knowledge of Russia’s efforts to attack the American political process. And that would be a momentous scandal.

One reason I’m increasingly suspicious is Trump’s furious denunciations of the press and of Barack Obama, to the point that he sometimes seems unhinged. Journalists have learned that when a leader goes berserk and unleashes tirades and threats at investigators, that’s when you’re getting close.

What the WikiLeaks document dump tells us about the CIA’s Frankfurt base

The Consulate General of the United States of America is pictured in Frankfurt, Germany March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski - RTS11XP5

The Consulate General of the United States of America is pictured in Frankfurt, Germany March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski – RTS11XP5

One of the revelations about the U.S. consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, that has come from the WikiLeaks release of CIA files is that American spies can use the facility for hacking databases that are not connected to the Internet.

The anti-secrecy group’s dump this week of nearly 8,761 CIA files confirmed that the consulate is a base for covert and overt CIA operatives. It also provided a window into how American spies operate in Europe and – most importantly — why Frankfurt has been so valuable for a specialized form of computer espionage.

“Germany is central to the rest of the European Union, which minimizes overall travel time to reach physical locations in any other country there. Since the types of attacks described [in the WikiLeaks documents] required physical access to computers, being able to get there quickly via train or other forms of transportation would be vital,” Nathan Wenzler, chief security strategist at San Francisco-based security consultancy AsTech Consulting, told Fox News.

“Even a one-hour flight to reach a neighboring major city would allow for faster response than, say, a seven-hour flight from the east coast of the U.S,” he said.

“Trying to hack a system that’s connected to the Internet doesn’t really require physical proximity, so, like most nation-state intelligence agencies, it’s easier and more effective to just run those sorts of attacks from within your own borders,” Wenzler said.

“Frankfurt would allow for a more ‘social engineering’ style of hacking, where the agent would need to gain physical access to a system by convincing the people around it to allow the agent to use it. Since that would require moving people around to get to those destinations, having a central location like Frankfurt to use as a hub for your operations just makes logistics more simple and reduces the time needed to execute,” Wenzler added.

The files explain how operatives can get through German customs without delay, including claiming they are with the State Department and are supporting technical consultations at the consulate.

“Breeze through German Customs because you have your cover-for-action story down pat, and all they did was stamp your passport,” the leaked CIA instructions say.

In a report for operatives new to the area, the CIA told operatives how to behave:

“Be aware that your coworkers here are all undercover;

“While cover seems like an administrative thing back home, it is vital in the Field;”

“Help protect everyone’s cover. Avoid using terms outside of the SCIF that could betray that people are not ‘State Department’ employees. Better to keep work discussions at work.”

“Do not leave anything electronic or sensitive unattended in your room.”

Paul Innella, CEO of TDI, a cybersecurity services firm headquartered in Washington, D.C., that works with the U.S. government and private sector clients across the globe, said the leaks have set the CIA back years.

“Things change fast in the cyber world and we need to carry out our missions of intelligence gathering, unencumbered by leaks such as this.”

The CIA won’t respond, the agency’s spokesperson Heather Fritz Horniak said: “We do not comment on the authenticity or content of purported intelligence documents.”

But a number of technology experts, federal law enforcement, and members of Congress believe the documents are authentic.

Germany’s chief federal prosecutor has launched an investigation into the alleged hacking operations, but Innella said the U.S. may have secret agreements with Germany to assist its government, and noted spies and a state-sponsored hacking activity are “effectively untouchable” while in that domain.

The voluminous number of CIA documents represents just 1 percent of what Wikileaks has obtained from the CIA, but has already revealed to the world some of the spy agency’s most prized cyber tools. The CIA has the ability to spy on its targets through their smartphones, computers, and some televisions, and has researched ways to hack into the electrical systems of automobiles. There could be nearly 1 million files and documents yet to be released.

Germans have known since at least 2013 that the Frankfurt facility, the largest US Consulate in the world, is CIA territory. According to German media, DW, the consulate became “the focus of a German investigation into U.S. intelligence capabilities following the 2013 revelation that NSA agents had tapped Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone.”

Malia Zimmerman is an award-winning investigative reporter focusing on crime, homeland security, illegal immigration crime, terrorism and political corruption. Follow her on twitter at @MaliaMZimmerman

WikiLeaks, Donald Tusk, European Central Bank: Your Friday Briefing

Good morning.

Here’s what you need to know:

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CreditChung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

A South Korean court ousted President Park Geun-hye from office, a first in the nation’s history that could reshape the strategic landscape in Asia.

Hundreds of thousands of people had taken to the streets in recent months to protest a sprawling corruption scandal that reached the presidency.

Her downfall is expected to shift South Korean politics to the opposition on the left, whose leaders want more engagement with the North.

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CreditStefan Wermuth/Reuters

Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain is resisting pressure to call an early general election to solidify her Conservative majority in the House of Commons while the opposition is in disarray.

A larger majority would take pressure off Mrs. May in the negotiations to leave the E.U., the result of which Parliament must approve, and allow her to claim her own personal mandate as prime minister. But she has vowed not to hold an election before the next scheduled vote, in May 2020.

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CreditLefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press

• A bitter dispute between Germany and Turkey escalated as leaders in both countries accused the other of acting in bad faith.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has accused Germany of using “Nazi practices” to block him from campaigning among Turks living there for a constitutional referendum at home that would expand his powers. In remarks to Parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel called the Nazi comparison “sad and incredibly misplaced.”

In Ankara, the prime minister also accused Germany of pushing for the referendum’s defeat, which he said would backfire.

TODAY IN NEW YORK, NYUpdate Location
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CreditWikiLeaks, via Associated Press

The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, moved to seize the moment after his organization released a new trove of classified information about the C.I.A.’s cyberweaponry.

Speaking from the Ecuadorean Embassy in London, where he has sought refuge since 2012, Mr. Assange presented himself as a defender of some of the biggest American technology companies against their own government.

The C.I.A. described Mr. Assange as “not exactly a bastion of truth and integrity.”

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CreditArab 24 network, via Associated Press

The U.S. is sending an additional 400 troops to Syria, nearly doubling the American forces deployed there.

A spokesman for the U.S.-led command said the move was intended to support preparations for an assault on Raqqa, which the Islamic State claims as its capital.

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Business

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CreditDaniel Roland/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

• The European Central Bank held monetary policy steady but faces growing pressure to begin the politically charged task of drawing years of stimulus to a close.

Facebook reported the BBC to the British police after a reporter provided the company with examples of sexualized images of children that had been posted on the social network.

Oil fell below $50 a barrel for the first time since December. Here’s what to make of the volatility.

Chloé, the French fashion label owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont, has named Natacha Ramsay-Levi as creative director.

With Donald J. Trump in the White House, other American executives are asking, why not me?

Here’s a snapshot of global markets.

MARKET SNAPSHOT 10:26 PMView Full Overview

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In the News

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CreditEric Vidal/Reuters

Donald Tusk, above, was appointed to a second term as president of the European Council, despite objections from his own country, Poland. [The New York Times]

The German police arrested a man in an ax attack that injured seven people at the main train station in Düsseldorf. [The New York Times]

Swiss lawmakers in the upper house voted against a proposal that would ban the niqab and the burqa in public places. [Politico]

The U.S. Justice Department declined to confirm a White House statement that Mr. Trump was not the target of a counterintelligence investigation. [The New York Times]

Jon M. Huntsman Jr. is said to have agreed to be U.S. ambassador to Russia. [The New York Times]

An antiques specialist visiting Blenheim Palace in England discovered an ancient Roman sarcophagus that was being used as a flower pot. [The New York Times]

New research by the British Library suggests that Jane Austen may have died from arsenic poisoning. [The New York Times]

Smarter Living

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CreditCraig Lee for The New York Times

• Prefer cold-brew coffee? Here’s how to do it right.

• Recipe of the day: Treat yourself to the comfort of Swedish meatloaf and caramelized cabbage.

Noteworthy

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CreditChristopher Furlong/Getty Images

In memoriam: Howard Hodgkin, above, a British painter who was one of the most admired artists of the postwar period, has died at 84. And Kurt Moll, a German basso who was his generation’s pre-eminent Baron Ochs in “Der Rosenkavalier,” has died at 78.

• The actor Samuel L. Jackson questioned the casting of the black British actor Daniel Kaluuya over a black American in the comedy-horror film “Get Out.” Here’s what some British minority actors who have worked in the U.S. have to say about the issue.

• Want to get in tune with today’s music? Here’s a curated 25-song playlist featuring Future, Adele, Mitski and more, with essays by some of our best culture writers.

“Countryfile,” a British television show that focuses on rural issues, is wildly popular in a nation where people have a “proprietorial attitude” to the countryside.

Back Story

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CreditElias Williams for The New York Times

In this age of e-readers and Amazon, it might be surprising that an American mail-order book business started nine decades ago is still supplying readers with literary selections.

Before best-seller lists and well-stocked bookstores, the Book of the Month Club tried to steer a growing middle class to the “right” books. Having such titles in the home became a sign of status.

In March 1926, “Lolly Willowes” by the British author Sylvia Townsend Warner was gaining acclaim, and a month later, it became the club’s inaugural pick.

Famously, a panel of literary experts made the choices over lunch and sherry around an oak table. Their credibility built the fledgling club’s membership.

They had hits like “Gone With the Wind” and “The Catcher in the Rye.” One miss was “The Grapes of Wrath.”

While critics viewed the club as middlebrow, it became a powerful literary institution in the U.S. Its influence diminished with the spread of bookstore chains in the 1980s and further declined with online bookselling.

But some of us still want to be guided by their judges. As an early club brochure said, “What a deprivation it is to miss reading an important new book at a time when everyone else is reading and discussing it.”

Adeel Hassan contributed reporting.

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Your Morning Briefing is published weekday mornings and updated online.

Read the latest edition of the U.S. briefing here and the latest for Asia and Australia here.

What would you like to see here? Contact us at europebriefing@nytimes.com.

Bill O’Reilly: Treason is in the air

We now know that somebody either leaked or hacked into CIA files that explained how U.S. intelligence is tracking enemies of the nation.

WikiLeaks, again, says it has released almost 9,000 documents from the CIA Center for Cyber Intelligence.

A Wall Street Journal editorial put it this way:

“The losses from this exposure are incalculable. These tools represent millions of dollars investment and man-hours. Many will now be rendered moot as terrorists or foreign agents abandon traceable habits.”

So again, ISIS, Al Qaeda, other killers now know how the USA is tracking them.

Therefore the leaks are a treasonous act.

According to the Reuters news agency, the CIA breach happened during the Obama administration.

“The Factor” has learned that some of the computer systems used by the agency are more than 40 years old, easily hacked into, easy targets of theft.

We have also been told that bids are out to high-tech companies to upgrade the computer facilities of our intelligence agencies.

That will cost tens of billions but is absolutely necessary in this very dangerous world.

But no matter how sophisticated the hardware gets, we still have people committing treason inside the government.

We reported on that Tuesday night.

Since taking office, President Trump has been bedeviled by leaks, with classified information being fed to the anti-Trump press among them.

So now we have a growing catastrophe. Obviously the CIA and other intelligence agencies cannot protect their secrets.

And so far only a few individuals have been charged with violating national security.

In 2013, then-Private Bradley Manning was convicted of six Espionage Act violations plus theft and computer fraud for giving stuff to WikiLeaks.

Just before he left office, President Obama commuted Manning’s 35 year sentence, allowing him to leave prison on May 17th after seven years.

Many objected to the leniency shown Manning.

Talking Points believes that leakers of classified documents are actively committing treason.

And it’s apparent that the federal government does not have a handle on how to apprehend these traitors, much less stop the espionage.

America is the most sophisticated country in the world, but we cannot protect the private conversations of our leader, our intel secrets, and our counter-terrorism measures. We can’t protect them! Obviously, a dangerous situation.

President Trump should order the FBI to aggressively investigate all leaks and hacks, assigning that a top priority.

Wednesday Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee requested a meeting with FBI Director Comey on the hacking and leaks.

Mr. Comey should do that as quickly as possible and it should be televised.

Americans need to know if this situation is completely out of control or what.

 

 

 

 

Adapted from the “Talking Points Memo” on March 8, 2017.

 

Russia’s RT Network: Is It More BBC or K.G.B.?

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The RT newsroom overlooking central London. Russia insists that RT is just another global network like the BBC or France 24, albeit one offering “alternative views” to those of the Western-dominated news media. CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

LONDON — The London newsroom and studios of RT, the television channel and website formerly known as Russia Today, are ultramodern and spacious, with spectacular views from the 16th floor overlooking the Thames and the London Eye. And, its London bureau chief, Nikolay A. Bogachikhin, jokes, “We overlook MI5 and we’re near MI6,” Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies.

Mr. Bogachikhin was poking fun at the charge from Western governments, American and European, that RT is an agent of Kremlin policy and a tool directly used by President Vladimir V. Putin to undermine Western democracies — meddling in the recent American presidential election and, European security officials say, trying to do the same in the Netherlands, France and Germany, all of which vote later this year.

But the West is not laughing. Even as Russia insists that RT is just another global network like the BBC or France 24, albeit one offering “alternative views” to the Western-dominated news media, many Western countries regard RT as the slickly produced heart of a broad, often covert disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about democratic institutions and destabilize the West.

Western attention focused on RT when the Obama administration and United States intelligence agencies judged with “high confidence” in January that Mr. Putin had ordered a campaign to “undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process,” discredit Hillary Clinton through the hacking of Democratic Party internal emails and provide support for Donald J. Trump, who as a candidate said he wanted to improve relations with Russia.

Continue reading the main story

The agencies issued a report saying the attack was carried out through the targeted use of real information, some open and some hacked, and the creation of false reports, or “fake news,” broadcast on state-funded news media like RT and its sibling, the internet news agency Sputnik. These reports were then amplified on social media, sometimes by computer “bots” that send out thousands of Facebook and Twitter messages.

To many Americans, the impression that RT is an instrument of Russian meddling was reinforced when its programming suddenly interrupted C-Span’s online coverage of the House of Representatives in January. (C-Span later called it a technical error, not a hacking.)

Watching RT can be a dizzying experience. Hard news and top-notch graphics mix with interviews from all sorts of people: well known and obscure, left and right. They include favorites like Julian Assange of WikiLeaks and Noam Chomsky, the liberal critic of Western policies; odd voices like the actress Pamela Anderson; and cranks who think Washington is the source of all evil in the world.

But if there is any unifying character to RT, it is a deep skepticism of Western and American narratives of the world and a fundamental defensiveness about Russia and Mr. Putin.

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Afshin Rattansi, on stage, hosting a talk show called “Going Underground.” Mr. Rattansi went to RT in 2013 after working at the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and Iran’s Press TV. “Unlike at the BBC and CNN, I was never told what to say at RT,” he said. CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Analysts are sharply divided about the influence of RT. Pointing to its minuscule ratings numbers, many caution against overstating its impact. Yet focusing on ratings may miss the point, says Peter Pomerantsev, who wrote a book three years ago that described Russia’s use of television for propaganda. “Ratings aren’t the main thing for them,” he said. “These are campaigns for financial, political and media influence.”

RT and Sputnik propel those campaigns by helping create the fodder for thousands of fake news propagators and providing another outlet for hacked material that can serve Russian interests, said Ben Nimmo, who studies RT for the Atlantic Council.

Whatever its impact, RT is unquestionably a case study in the complexity of modern propaganda. It is both a slick modern television network, dressed up with great visuals and stylish presenters, and a content farm that helps feed the European far right. Viewers find it difficult to discern exactly what is journalism and what is propaganda, what may be “fake news” and what is real but presented with a strong slant.

A recent evening featured reports of Britain refusing to condemn human rights violations in Bahrain and a “mainstream media firestorm” over Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s chats with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Other reports included the “liberation” of Palmyra by the Syrian Army with “the support of the Russian Air Force;” an interview with former British ambassador to Syria and a United States critic, Peter Ford; and a report about a London professor decrying the fall in British living standards.

There are “clickbait” videos on RT’s website and stranger pieces, too, like one about a petition to ban the financier George Soros from America for supposedly trying to “destabilize” the country and “drown it” with immigrants for a “globalist goal.”

Mr. Bogachikhin and Anna Belkina, RT’s head of communications in Moscow, insist it is absurd to lump together RT’s effort to provide “alternative views to the mainstream media” with the phenomena of fake news and social media propaganda.

“There’s an hysteria about RT,” Ms. Belkina said. “RT becomes a shorthand for everything.”

For example, she says, while RT was featured heavily in the American intelligence report, it was largely in a seven-page annex (of a 13-page report) that was written more than four years ago, in December 2012, a fact revealed only in a footnote on Page 6.

She flatly denies any suggestion that RT seeks to meddle in democratic elections anywhere. “The kind of scrutiny we’re under — we check everything.”

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“We overlook MI5 and we’re near MI6,” Britain’s domestic and foreign intelligence agencies, Nikolay A. Bogachikhin, RT’s London bureau chief, joked last month. He was poking fun at the charge from Western governments that RT is effectively a Kremlin agency. CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

For RT and its viewers, the outlet is a refreshing alternative to what they see as complacent Western elitism and neo-liberalism, representing what the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov recently called a “post-West world order.”

With its slogan, created by a Western ad agency, of “Question More,” RT is trying to fill a niche, Ms. Belkina said. “We want to complete the picture rather than add to the echo chamber of mainstream news; that’s how we find an audience.”

Nearly all the mainstream media came out against Mr. Trump during the campaign and much of the news coverage about him was negative, she said.

“This is why we exist,” Ms. Belkina said. “It’s important to watch RT to hear alternative voices. You might not agree with them, but it’s important to try to understand where they’re coming from and why.”

A French legislator, Nicolas Dhuicq, who has appeared on RT and went to Russian-annexed Crimea in 2015 as part of a delegation of French legislators, said that RT’s aim was “to make the voice of Russia heard, to make the Russian point of view on the world heard.”

Still, Mr. Dhuicq said, “the impact of RT, in my opinion, is very low.” He added: “There is enormous paranoia when we imagine that RT will change the face of the world, influence national or other elections.”

Afshin Rattansi, who hosts a talk show three times a week called “Going Underground,” came to RT in 2013 after working at the BBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and Iran’s Press TV. “Unlike at the BBC and CNN, I was never told what to say at RT,” he said. There have been two cases of RT announcers quitting because of what they said was pressure to toe a Kremlin line, especially on Ukraine, but not in London, Mr. Rattansi said.

Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor who was the United States ambassador to Russia during the Obama years, said that RT should not be lightly dismissed. “There is a demand in certain countries for this alternative view, an appetite, and we arrogant Americans shouldn’t just think that no one cares.”

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“Question More” is the slogan of RT, which is trying to fill a niche, said Anna Belkina, head of communications in Moscow. “We want to complete the picture rather than add to the echo chamber of mainstream news; that’s how we find an audience.” CreditSergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

But there is a considerably darker view, too. For critics, RT and Sputnik are simply tools of a sophisticated Russian propaganda machine, created by the Kremlin to push its foreign policy, defend its aggression in Ukraine and undermine confidence in democracy, NATO and the world as we have known it.

Robert Pszczel, who ran NATO’s information office in Moscow and watches Russia and the western Balkans for NATO, said that RT and Sputnik were not meant for domestic consumption, unlike the BBC or CNN. Over time, he said, “It’s more about hard power and disinformation.”

The Kremlin doesn’t care “if you agree with Russian policy or think Putin is wonderful, so long as it does the job — you start having doubts, and of 10 outrageous points you take on one or two,” he said. “A bit of mud will always stick.”

Probably more important than RT, Mr. Pszczel said, are Sputnik and local language outlets sponsored by Russia, like the Slovak magazine “Zem a Vek,” known for its conspiracy theories. Sputnik is the largest source of raw news in the Balkans, he said, “because it’s a free product in local languages.” And “then they set up some friendly association, at some small university, which holds seminars, and then a number of strange websites start promoting the product, like an industrial marketing operation.”

But RT is also helpful in another traditional Moscow effort: making friends with useful people, and not just Mr. Assange, Mr. Pomerantsev said. “RT made Mike Flynn feel good after losing his job” as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he said, paying him a reported $40,000 to come to RT’s anniversary celebration in Moscow and sit near Mr. Putin. And Mr. Flynn, for a time, was national security adviser of the United States.

Mr. Nimmo of the Atlantic Council noted RT’s small reach in Germany, where Angela Merkel, a Putin critic, is facing a tough re-election fight, and where there are up to 3.5 million Russian speakers. “I strongly suspect that RT Deutsch has a trivial effect compared to Russian-speaking Germans watching Russian television,” he said.

Stefan Meister, who studies Russia and Central Europe for the German Council on Foreign Relations, agreed that “we shouldn’t overestimate RT. The main success of the Russians is the link to social media through bots and a network of different sources.” That network, he said, is “increasingly well organized, with more strategic and explicit links between sources and actors — Russian domestic media, troll factories, RT, people in social networks and maybe also the security services.”

“Open societies are very vulnerable,” Mr. Meister said, “and it’s cheaper than buying a new rocket.”

RT is part of the reality of the 21st century, Mr. Pomerantsev said. “Everyone will do it soon. It’s the world we have to live in.” Hacks and leaks are much more disruptive, he said. “If you can take out the electrical grid in Ukraine, that’s scary. It’s hard to get too scared about Larry King on RT.”

Mr. Pomerantsev agrees with Ms. Belkina that RT is not inventing popular mistrust about Western democracy. “The Russians are about sowing mistrust about institutions that is there already, feeding it,” he said. “How do we make our institutions more trustworthy?”

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